Port Allen community, Baton Rouge Louisiana Stake link arms to help at schools, parks

Published: Sunday, Oct. 4 2015 2:28 a.m. MDT

Part of a series about "Day of Service" events

BATON ROUGE, La. — It all started last year with Marlys Vaughan.

Two months before the planned 2010 Day of Service, the project fell through. With several hundred volunteers and no service project, Val Riggs, president of the Baton Rouge Louisiana Stake, asked a gathering of leaders if anyone had any ideas for a new project. Vaughan, second counselor in the stake Relief Society presidency and a teacher at Port Allen Elementary, said, “Well, I know a school that could use some help.”

And that’s how the Baton Rouge Louisiana Stake teamed up with Principal Michelle Kauffman of Port Allen Elementary and Principal Jonathon Szymanski of Port Allen Middle School as part of the Great American Clean Up and the LDS Church's Day of Service.

That Saturday in 2010 amidst severe storm warnings, more than 250 volunteers crowded into the elementary school gymnasium. “If the Lord can part the Red Sea, I don’t think a few storm clouds will be a problem," said Pat Richardson of the Gonzales Ward and chairman of the project. "There’s plenty to do inside until it clears up outside.”

Within 10 minutes of the opening hymn and prayer, the rain had stopped. The number of people who participated that day had Szymanski grinning and Kauffman brushing tears away.

There were no tears this year as Kauffman directed volunteers like a seasoned veteran. Szymanski was already thinking ahead to next year’s to-do list. Outside, West Baton Rouge Parish Councilwoman Charlene Gordon stopped by and was all smiles as she told volunteers how much she appreciated what they were doing. “I’m on my way now to Cohn Elementary to do my service.”

Cohn Elementary, under Principal Cassy Brou, had been added to the 2011 service project, along with the pool house at William and Lee Park. Brou worked alongside volunteers as they painted, landscaped and pressure-washed the school’s brick exterior.

“The school could never have accomplished this amount of work alone over the summer,” she said. “These kinds of projects just don’t get done.”

At William and Lee Park, where the pool house had suffered some damage from a small fire, there were about 20 people at work. On the inside, workers were replacing the tiles in the ceiling and painting walls, while others worked outside, replacing deteriorating soffit and fascia.

Bruce Bass, parks and recreation director, pulled up in his truck and began to unload supplies the volunteers would need. Seeing all the work that had already been accomplished, he grinned. “This is awesome. It could never happen on a normal budget year for us.”

West Baton Rouge Parish Councilman Edward G. Robertson also stopped by to thank the volunteers. The pool held a soft spot for him. “I was one of the first lifeguards back in the 1960s when it was built. It was the first Olympic-size pool in the area,” he said.

Daood Walker, a self-employed contractor, was one of the volunteers at the pool house. He had heard about the project from Tommy Mann, president of the Gonzales Ward's elders quorum.

“Tommy had told me about this project, and I wanted to help,” he said. His words echoed the other nonmembers we talked to.

Back at Cohn Elementary, Peggy Mann was pressure-washing the bricks and sidewalk. The Manns own P.T. Enterprizes and had volunteered their equipment and services for the day.

“Pressure-washing is hard work,” she said. “The water temperature reaches about 360 degrees running through the machine. We have to take turns. But it’s fun to be here.”

Mary Delapasse, director of the “Keep West Baton Rouge Parish Beautiful” campaign, was by far the most popular person at the event because she provided lunch for everybody. She’s also the coordinator between the church and parish and had been working on details for the past six months to make sure everything ran smoothly. Though she was extremely busy dropping off supplies for the kitchen volunteers, she still took time to thank the LDS Church for making all of this possible.

The idea of a Day of Service in the South began when Elder Walter F. Gonzalez of the Presidency of the Seventy, who presides over the North American Southeast Area of the LDS Church, realized how many people and small communities had been affected by the economic recession. He asked the members in the Southeast states to donate one day of service in their communities as a stake.

President Henry B. Eyring reinforced the idea during the 2011 April general conference, asking members worldwide to participate in a Day of Service to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the church welfare program. The Baton Rouge Stake, following the counsel of these leaders, found great joy in linking arms and lifting hearts with the people of Port Allen.

As the day wound down at Port Allen Middle School, Szymanski stood in the newly painted school gym, grinning.

“Isn’t this magnificent? Next year they said they could paint the beams,” he said of the beams three stories up.

Back over at Port Allen Elementary, volunteers were everywhere doing the last bit of painting and landscaping on the rebuilding project of the school’s old wooden play set, which took two days to complete and turned out amazing.

While Vaughan, who first suggested helping at the school, and others stood admiring the new tricycle track and watching one of Vaughan's fellow teachers, Stephanie Bourque, add the final stripes, Bourque looked up.

Catching a glimpse of Vaughan, she laughed, “See what you started.”

Nayda Easley is director of public affairs of the Baton Rouge Louisiana Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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